I had applied for the residency with Small Wonder Short Story Festival with the intention of contributing to a debate raging back in South Africa about writers’ festivals and inclusive/exclusive spaces. I had thought that when at Small Wonder I would find ideas on how I could help bring order to the chaos I come from, as I am forever on the quest to right wrongs of history, the never-ending burden of the post-apartheid survivor.
I was lucky enough to arrive at Charleston before it got too cold. The lush, colourful garden is so wild that I felt I could spend a lifetime wandering around, alone with my thoughts. I think every writer who has grown up on English literature dreams of visiting the lush, English countryside as it is such a great part of many classics. We also dream of finding places that some of our favourite authors lived in or merely visited. That’s what I told myself as I felt silly for noticing that my heart quickened at the thought of Virginia Woolf having walked the floors of the old farmhouse where her sister Vanessa lived and worked. I felt like a teenager when I did the tour of the house, imagining the writers and painters smoking, taking in the afternoon sun and discussing art in the downstairs living room. Charleston really is the perfect place for inspiration, the ideal set up for a writers’ festival. I hoped to work through my feeling of being stuck in my work as I read, walked around the garden, ate some of the best food I’d had in a long time (in the world’s best Green Room) or simply as I sat on a bench facing the pond at the front of the house.
Here is where I’m afraid I went from being concerned with writers’ festivals to indulging my own individual needs. I blame the beauty of Charleston for this diversion.
It’s not Virginia Woolf’s home but perhaps because of her connection to it, my thoughts did end up going back to the quest for a secluded creative space, her declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. It may seem odd to think of a South African author being able to relate - and indeed being so heavily influenced by - an English feminist such as Woolf, whose world might seem so far removed from my own. To me, even after all these years since my first introduction to Woolf, her work remains relevant. I remember the first time I read A Room of One’s Own, how tantalizing the thought of my own private writing space felt at the time, having grown up in a place where all space is shared and none of it feels safe.
I come from chaos. I come from violence and fear and trauma. I’m constantly searching for spaces that chip away at the chaos or completely allow me to forget it for brief moments, because what you come from can live forever in you. So I set out to find some solace in Charleston and its surroundings. I escaped back into English romantic poetry, noticing every dahlia and every rose. I lost myself in the simple sounds, like footsteps on the gravel road up to and around the farmhouse. These simple things were surprisingly calming. The sound of one’s own footsteps can bring you back to your body, keep you connected to your mind.
At the day-long workshop on short story writing I attempted a poem about this world I was briefly inhabiting. Since everyone around me was busy with stories of gardening I thought I’d fully place myself here, where there were old pretty paintings of vases and beautiful, large windows overlooking a sea of flowers. Elegant Englishwomen surrounded me with scarves neatly, carefully wrapped around their necks and the grass was greener than I had seen it in a very long time. All these things seemed like inspiration for a good short story. I had so looked forward to the opportunity to be in a calming space and watch my creativity flow without much, if any, effort on my part. But as I said before, what you come from can live in you forever. My first attempt at a pretty anecdote ended up being the beginnings of a short story about a despondent boy who is stuck in a life of crime but longs to return to school and feel less anxious and more sure of his future. Where there had been dahlias and petunias in other people’s stories there were torn clothes and stolen goods in mine. I was slightly embarrassed when my turn to read out loud came, following about five stories of natural beauty and the comforts of gardening. I felt that being lost in my surroundings was escaping me. I wanted to return to dahlias and Duncan Grant’s dancers but maybe I will forever be writing about township girls and boys living on dusty streets where nothing grows. Still, to have the space to write, to have been in a pretty place that led me to think - even if only for a few days - that I could escape to other worlds, was a precious and invaluable experience and I will forever be grateful for it.